South Carolina women show they've 'got a Final Four-type team' in Arkansas blowout
COLUMBIA - On the wrong end of domination, Arkansas coach Tom Collen had some parting words for his counterpart before catching a return flight home.
No. 6 South Carolina had just won, 67-49, leading by double digits for the final 28 minutes. The Gamecocks often made it look easy, cruising through another SEC opponent. They overcame 19 turnovers and 23 percent shooting behind the 3-point arc.
Collen thought his team executed its game plan reasonably well Sunday, only to become South Carolina's fourth double-digit victory during its six-game winning streak.
"Sometimes, those kids are just so big and so physical, and they just bury their shoulders in you, and they keep the ball high," Collen said of the Gamecocks. "They score over the top of you."
It was enough to leave the 34-year coaching veteran more impressed than humbled.
Collen walked up to Dawn Staley after the game, wanting to send a message. He stuck out his right hand and let the Gamecocks' coach know exactly what he thought.
"She's probably got a Final Four-type team," Collen said, "and I think they're only going to get better because they don't lose a lot of players off this team. So, when I shook hands with her after the game, that's what I told her. I'm going to be pulling for her to make it all the way to the Final Four. Get it done, and represent the SEC."
It's getting hard - if not impossible - to ignore the lofty potential of where South Carolina could go this spring. Before a crowd of 7,545 at Colonial Life Arena, the Gamecocks improved to 22-2. Their only SEC loss remains a two-point, overtime defeat at No. 19 Texas A&M.
South Carolina did what it's thrived on all season, relentlessly dumping the basketball into the post. The Gamecocks outscored the Razorbacks, 30-14, in the paint.
"That's our bread and butter right now," junior forward Aleighsa Welch said.
Welch, a former Goose Creek High School star, finished with a game-high 16 points to go with seven rebounds, five blocks and two steals. Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell had 15 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
The duo is peaking at the right time, entering a difficult five-game stretch to close the regular season. South Carolina will face three ranked opponents on the road, including a trip to No. 16 LSU next Sunday. Welch said there will be no looking past the Tigers, even with trips to No. 15 Kentucky and No. 8 Tennessee looming.
"Coach Staley does a really good job of keeping us grounded, just letting us know any team is capable of beating any team in the SEC," Welch said. "I think there's been plenty of examples of that throughout the entire season. Especially now, with us having so much success, every team is coming for us. Every team wants to beat us.
"We're playing great basketball right now, but it has to be game-by-game and day-by-day because every team's coming to try to take what we have."
The expectations are going nowhere, so long as South Carolina keeps winning. Staley didn't even pretend to ignore her team's lofty potential.
Yes, she's thought about where her team could go this spring. Behind closed doors, among her assistant coaches, they've whispered about their dreams. That doesn't mean the Gamecocks are looking too far into the near future.
"We're not going to do that in front of our team," Staley said. "Of course, we do. We're jockeying positions. But the way you look at it is, if we continue to do what we've done all season long, that stuff will take care of itself. So we're just going to concentrate on getting another win on the road at LSU, and whatever's after that is after that."